Friday, September 23, 2011
It was summer time, and twilight. We were sitting on the porch of the farmhouse, "Aunt Rachel" was sitting respectfully below our level -- for she was our servant, and colored. She was of mighty frame & stature; she was sixty years old, but her eye was undimmed her strength unabated. She was a cheerful, hearty soul, & it was no more trouble for her to laugh than it is for a bird to sing. She was under fire, now, as usual when the day was done. That is to say, she was being chaffed without mercy, and was enjoying it. She would let off peal after peal of laughter, & then sit with her face in her hands and shake with throes of enjoyment which she no longer got breath enough to express. At such a moment as this a thought occured to me, I said:
"Aunt Rachel, how is it that you've lived sixty years & never had any trouble?"
She stopped quaking. She paused, & there was a moment of silence. She turned her face over her shoulder toward me, and said, without even a smile in her voice:
"Misto C., is you in arnest?"
It surprised me quite a good deal, and it sobered my manner and my speech, too. I said:
"Why, I thought -- that is, I meant -- why, you can't have had any trouble. I've never heard you sigh, and never seen your eye when there wasn't a laugh in it."
She faced fairly around, now, and was full of earnestness.
Has I had any trouble? Misto C., I's gwyne to tell you, den I leave it to you. I was bawn down mongst de slaves -- I knows all 'bout slavery, I ben one of 'em my own sef. Well, sah, my ole man -- dat's my husban' -- he was lovin' an' kind to me -- jist as kind as you is to yo' own wife. An' we had chil'en -- seven chil'en -- and we loves dem chil'en jist de same as you loves yo' chil'en. Dey was black, but de Lord can't make no chil'en so black but what dey mother loves 'em an' wouldn't give 'em up, no, not for anything dat's in dis whole world.
[Aunt Rachel had gradually risen, while she warmed to her subject, and now she towered above us, black against the stars.]
Dey put chains on us an' put us on a stan' as high as dis poach -- twenty foot high -- an all de people stood a- roun' -- crowds an crowds. An' dey'd come up dah an' us all roun, an' squeeze our arm, an' make us git up an' walk, an' den say, "Dis one too ole," or "Dis one lame," or "Dis one don't 'mount to much." An' dey sole my ole man, an' took him away, an' dey begin to sell my chil'en an' take dem away, an' I begin to cry; an' de man say "Shet up yo' darn blubberins," an hit me on de mouf wid his han'. An' when de las' one was gone but my little Henry, I grab him clos up to my breas', so, an' I ris up an' says, "You shan't take him a- way I says; "I'll kill de man dat tetches him!" But my little Henry whis- per an' say, "I gwyne to run away, an' den I work an' buy yo' freedom." O, bless de chile, good. dey got him -- dey got him, de men did -- but I took and tear mos' off of 'em an' beat 'em over de head wid my chain; an' dey give it to me, too, but I didn't min dat.
Well, dah was my ole man gone, an' all my chil'en all my seven chil'en -- an' six of 'em I hain't set eyes on agin to dis day an' dats twenty- two year ago las' Easter. De man dat bought me b'long in Newbern, an' he took me dah. Well, bymeby de years roll on an' de waw come. My marster he was a Confedrit Colonel, an' I was his family's cook. So when de Unions took dat town, dey all run away an' lef' me all by mysef wid de other niggers in dat mon'sus big house. So de big Union officers move in dah an' dey ask me would I cook for dem. "Lord bless you," says me
Well, I thinks to myself, if my little Henry ever a chance to run away, he'd mae to de Norf, o'course. So one day I comes in dah whah de big officers was, in de parlor, an' I drops a kurtchy, so, an' I tole 'em 'bout my Henry, dey a listenin' jist de same as if I was white; an' I says, "What I come for is if he got away & got up Norf whah you gemmen comes from, you might a seen him, maybe, could tell me so as I could fine him agin; he had a sk-yar on his lef' wris', an' at de top of his forehead." Den dey look mournful, & de Gen'l say, "How long sence you los' him?" an' I say "Thirteen year." Den de Gen'l say, "He wouldn't be little no mo', now -- he's a man!"
I never thought o' dat befo'! He was only dat little feller to me, yit. I never thought 'bout him growin' up an' bein' big. None o' de gemmen had run acrost him, so dey couldn't do nothin' for me. But all dat time, do' I didn't know it, my Henry was run off to de Norf, years & years, an' he was a barber, too, an' worked for hisse'f. An bymeby when de waw come, he ups an' he says, "I's done barberin," he says; "I's gwyne to fine my ole mammy, less'n she's dead." So he sole out an' went to whah dey was re- cruitin', an' hired hisse'f out to de Colonel for his servant; an' den he went all froo de battles everywhah, huntin' for his ole mammy; yes in- deedy, he'd hire to fust one officer an' den an- other, tell he'd ransacked de whole Souf -- but you see I didn't know nuffin' 'bout dis.
Well, 'bout seven I was up an' on han', gittin' de officers' breakfast. I was a stoopin' down by de stove -- jist so same as if yo' foot was de stove -- an' I'd opened de stove do' wid my right han', -- so, pushin' it back, jist as I pushes yo' foot -- an' I'd jist got de pan o' hot biscuits in my han' an' was 'bout to raise up, when I see a black face come aroun' under mine, an' de eyes a lookin' up into mine, jist as I' a lookin' up clost under yo' face now an' I jist stopped right dah, an' never budged! jist gazed, an' gazed, so an' de pan begin to tremble, an' all of a sudden I knowed! De pan drop' on de flo' an' I grab his lef' han' an' shove back his sleeve -- jist so, as I' doin' to you -- an' den I for his forehead an' push de hair back so an' "Boy!" I says, "if you ain't my Henry, what is you doin' wid dis welt on yo' wris' an' dat sk-yar on yo' forehead! de Lord God of Heaven be praise', I got my own agin!"
"O, no, Misto C. I ain't had no trouble. An' no joy"
I didn't write this, Mark Twain did in 1874. I wanted you to read it not necessarily for it's racial overtones, but because its a great story; and true, and its a window on what seems to be a vanishing artform: storytelling.
I come from a family of storytellers. My Dad may be the best storyteller I've ever known; able to pluck memories, people and events out of the air like a kid catching lightning bugs. I grew up on a steady diet of Uncle Sydney stories, tales of misadventure at Gilbert Penny's pond, whoopins and close getaways, dirt clod fights and what a treat chocolate pudding on cornbread can be. I've watched countless times as he told and retold these stories to groups of people either from a pulpit of hundreds or to just a couple of guys waiting in a line somewhere. Each time the reaction would be the same: they hang on every word. I've seen him bring tears to the eyes of some of the meanest looking rascals God gave breathe to and made the most stoic of men double over in laughter. It's his gift, plain and simple.
As I've gotten older some of my favorite times have been spent listening to my Dad and my Uncles: Burland, Don and Randy talk on the back porch. Each recalling their autobiographies back to each other, never a real arguement, just a ribbon of stories and experiences ranging from tales of war, high school football teams, and always something about Memaws drop biscuits which would harden to the consistancy of pig iron if not consumed within mere seconds of the oven door opening. These four men hold court at family events;running everything and running my poor Aunts to death. They flirt with their nephews wives and girlfriends in that awkward unpracticed way old married men do and in turn charm every one of them.
Just in the story above some of the most memorable times come from swapping stories on a porch or patio. So in late summer Alabama, as the day wears down and grandkids are being put down to sleep, and the Aunts finally get to sit and rest, you'll find these boys in old men's clothes sitting in a semi circle staring off somewhere as if watching memories on a movie screen, playing remember when, cutting up and laughing throughout. You'll hear Randy brag, amen and joke, Don tell tales that just can't seem probable, Burland interject Crimson Tide football into every conversation topic and watch my Dad catch memories like lightning bugs.